Community / No role for council to make Lerwick Up Helly Aa more inclusive, says SIC

SHETLAND Islands Council (SIC) has insisted that it has no role in helping to facilitate change to the way Lerwick Up Helly Aa is celebrated and reiterated its view that the authority is not in breach of equality legislation by allowing the festival to use public sites around town including the town hall.

Both council convener Malcolm Bell and chief executive Maggie Sandison were quick to respond to a protest staged outside Lerwick Town Hall this morning, the last Tuesday in January, the day the famous fire festival would have taken place had it not been postponed for a year due to Covid-19 restriction.

Bell however suggested that the current break in the festival timetable could be used “constructively” by starting a dialogue between both sides.

Peter Hamilton outside the Town Hall on Tuesday morning. Photo: Hans J Marter/Shetland News

Gender equality campaigner Peter Hamilton says he will report the SIC to the Scottish Human Rights Commission should the authority continue with its stance which he believes breaches the equality act in that it actively discriminates against gender and reinforces harmful stereotypes which ultimately lead to violence against women.

Contrary to the recent photos seen nationally of male and female Vikings from Shetland’s South Mainland Up Helly Aa (SMUHA) parading through Glasgow to mark the opening of the Celtic Connections festival, only men feature in the torch bearing squads of the Lerwick Up Helly Aa, the most famous of the fire festivals.

Later on Tuesday, Up Helly Aa for Aa, a group campaigning for gradual change by allowing girls and women to become squad members, has asked its supporters to gather at the galley burning site in King George V play park to ‘reclaim’ the site.

Become a supporter of Shetland News

Malcolm Bell. Photo: Chris Cope/Shetland News

Convener Bell said that Hamilton had every right to make his protest peacefully.

He said: “The council does not sanction Up Helly Aa, does not control it and cannot dictate or change the constitution of another body.

“The council is not in breach of its equalities duty. We have repeatedly made that clear.

Bell added: “Up Helly Aa is a community festival and doubtless it will change when the community is ready to change it.

“I personally do not care who takes part in Up Helly Aa but, in the abstract, should anyone be prevented from taking part in something purely on the basis of their sex then clearly the answer is no. Again I have said that repeatedly.

“Perhaps the current postponement of the festival due to Covid is an ideal opportunity for both sides in the debate to engage constructively with each other.”


Sandison added: “Mr Hamilton has a right to peaceful protest. I will ensure that the Up Helly Aa committee receive a copy of his flyer and I will encourage them to enter into dialogue with Mr Hamilton, as I have encouraged them to enter into dialogue with other groups in the past.”

‘It’s time to start talking’ – says equality campaigner who has set up camp outside Lerwick Town Hall

Hamilton said: “Gender-based violence in every community is going to need action by men in each community to fix. I am sure convenor Bell privately agrees, even though publicly he says human rights and equalities can be delegated to ‘the community’.

“To keep in line with the 2010 Equality Act, Shetland’s Equality Outcomes Progress & Mainstreaming Report 2021 – 2025 requires the council to ‘eliminate discrimination’.

“So the way forwards for the council is simple. Instead of having a civic ceremony to endorse this sexist celebration, the convenor needs to invite the UHA committee into a meeting, and they need to accept that invitation.


“It is his hospitality they have come to enjoy, and it is his position they must respect.”

Male and female Vikings from SMUHA parading through the streets of Glasgow on Saturday. All photos: Gaelle Beri

Become a supporter of Shetland News

Shetland News is asking its many readers to consider start paying for their dose of the latest local news delivered straight to their PC, tablet or mobile phone.

Journalism comes at a price and because that price is not being paid in today’s rapidly changing media world, most publishers - national and local - struggle financially despite very healthy audience figures.

Most online publishers have started charging for access to their websites, others have chosen a different route. Shetland News currently has  over 600 supporters  who are all making small voluntary financial contributions. All funds go towards covering our cost and improving the service further.

Your contribution will ensure Shetland News can: -

  • Bring you the headlines as they happen;
  • Stay editorially independent;
  • Give a voice to the community;
  • Grow site traffic further;
  • Research and publish more in-depth news, including more Shetland Lives features.

If you appreciate what we do and feel strongly about impartial local journalism, then please become a supporter of Shetland News by either making a single payment or monthly subscription.

Support us from as little as £3 per month – it only takes a minute to sign up. Thank you.



Subscribe to a selection of different newsletters from Shetland News, varying from breaking news delivered on the minute, to a weekly round-up of the opinion posts. All delivered straight to your inbox.

Daily Briefing Newsletter Weekly Highlights Newsletter Opinion Newsletter Life in Shetland Newsletter

JavaScript Required

We're sorry, but Shetland News isn't fully functional without JavaScript enabled.
Head over to the help page for instructions on how to enable JavaScript on your browser.

Your Privacy

We use cookies on our site to improve your experience.
By using our service, you agree to our Privacy Policy and Cookie Policy.

Browser is out-of-date

Shetland News isn't fully functional with this version of .
Head over to the help page for instructions on updating your browser for more security, improved speed and the best overall experience on this site.

Interested in Notifications?

Get notifications from Shetland News for important and breaking news.
You can unsubscribe at any time.

Become a supporter of Shetland News

We're committed to ensuring everyone has equitable access to impartial, open and quality local journalism that benefits all residents.

By supporting Shetland News, you play a vital role in ensuring we remain a pivotal resource in supporting the community.

Support us from as little as £3 per month – it only takes a minute to sign up. Thank you.